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Section 22
Coping Strategies: the Victim, the Frontier Runner, & the Avenger

Question 22 | Test | Table of Contents

"It's Fate." The Victim Strategy
The life stories of some boys suggest that they continue to find themselves in the position of victim. Sometimes it involves situations in which the young man will again tolerate abuse without denouncing it or attempting to escape it. He is convinced that his being abused goes without saying, that to be sexually exploited is part of life, at least part of his life. This is termed passive revictimization. In other cases a young man seems to put himself, more or less deliberately, in the dangerous position of being again exploited or aggressed sexually. It is as though he runs recklessly into relationships that remind him in one way or another of the abuse to which he has already been subjected. This is termed active revictirnization.

When boys who have been sexually victimized find themselves working as prostitutes or as sexual escorts or nude dancers, for example, it is likely that their past abuse has triggered certain cognitive connections that recognize sexuality as a means of obtaining something they want, be it attention from adults, money, drugs, clothes, gifts, etc. These young men have often assimilated at a very young age the principle of giving in order to get something.

In receiving material or emotional rewards in return for sexual acts, they have learned a lesson they will remember. They may also, from now on, repeat the traumatizing experience of the past in such a way as to render it commonplace. Replaying the same scenario over and over seems to reassure and comfort them with the feeling that such behaviour cannot be so serious after all, and, since they themselves are making the decision to offer their sexuality, they are now masters of the situation. At least this is the impression they have.

According to the Canadian Badgley Commission's report on sexual abuse of children, seventy-seven percent of male child prostitutes had their first sexual relations by the age of twelve or earlier. In one case out of three it occurred in a context of violence and in less than one case in four the context was incest.3 Some American studies double the latter statistic.4 It seems that a victim of sexual abuse, having become accustomed to it, is all the more willing to take on the role of sexual object. A boy who has been been treated as a sex slave over a period of years can take refuge in what he knows: a world of dependence, submission, humiliation, even of brutalization. Some have a tendency to deny their own emotional or sexual needs and adopt a fatalist philosophy: "If I want to be loved or appreciated, I have to provide sex, whether I want it or not." This reasoning could explain why for some young men, "pleasuring the other" sexually is an absolute priority, never mind their own desire (or lack of it) or their own satisfaction.

It is possible that in taking refuge in a familiar psychological or relational attitude - the attitude that prevailed during the abuse -certain boys feel themselves paradoxically to be safer. They cling to their victim status because the unknown scares them. An unhappy destiny may be perceived as a defense against a fate that may be even worse. By this stage, certain children or adolescents have been so deprived on the emotional level, or so mistreated on the physical level, that their world hardly comprises anything beyond the array of tormented experiences they have always known.

"Who Will be Next?" The Frontier-Runner Strategy
Whatever reason a boy may give afterwards, he has crossed a boundary, a forbidden frontier, when he inflicts upon another child what he himself went through, when he inveigles a child into the prohibited area in which he found himself in the past: the zone of sexual abuse, silence, and secrets.

As I have already stressed, actively reproducing an abuse that was once passively endured is without doubt aimed at repairing the past since this time the experience becomes a source of pleasure. In reliving the traumatic experience by reversing roles and identifying himself up to a point with the aggressor, the adolescent or grown-up former victim is attempting to protect his personal sense of masculinity. He takes the "best role," from his point of view, in the relationship of power that plays out between a sexually abused child and an abuser. This would explain why exvictims who become abusers display hardly any empathy towards their victim: they certainly do not wish to imagine themselves in his shoes. It is a situation they are pointedly trying to forget.

Boys who come to identify with the aggressor in this way lose less self-esteem, at least to begin with, so that temporarily their sense of identity survives the abuse experience more easily. If the important thing for a male is to maintain his virility, superiority, or dominance, then the greatest disgrace is to be sexually subjugated by another male. Thus, affirming their virility is a matter of urgency for many masculine victims of sexual abuse, and committing abuse is unfortunately perceived as one way to bring this about. It is an attempt to liberate the self from trauma by actively repeating what was once passively endured. Therapists who work with child abusers confirm that, in many cases, the latter reproduce their own victimization by going after children who are roughly the same age that they themselves were when first abused. Indeed, aggressors often see themselves in the children they abuse. But they rewrite their own history in order symbolically to come through as winners this time around.

Most respondents confided that they had fantasized about abusing. Approximately one-third of them acted on their fantasies or tried to realize them at least once. Some of them quickly came to reverse their role as victim after having been sexually abused themselves. Thus, Marcel was only fourteen years old when he sexually abused his little brother, aged five, and his little sister aged six. As for Paul, at ten years old he began, while babysitting, to touch the genitals of his brother's baby girls. Jean-Marc, at sixteen, began sexually interfering with a little neighbor. With Pascal, at seventeen, it was the little girl who lived in the same foster home with him. Vladimir, although still an adolescent, was a procurer of under-age prostitutes.

Following the example of his own aggressor and disregarding the negative fall-out from his own past experience, the adolescent ex-victim who sexually abuses a younger child may see himself more as an initiator than an abuser. Some children come to see forced sex as so ordinary that they don't question it, even once they are no longer being abused. Abused boys may also have acquired a certain repertoire of sexual reactions and behaviours. A precocious and drawn-out participation in sexual activity, even when not desired, can lead a child or an adolescent to eroticize certain aspects of it. This involuntary apprenticeship is all the more effective since the child has hardly any ability to understand his own sexuality, far less to manage it.

Victims can become habituated and desensitized to sexual abuse, especially if the abuse they were subjected to was repetitive. In spite of himself, a boy victim of sexual abuse may have learned to associate sexual pleasure with the dehumanization of both participants. Paradoxically, his aggressor's acts may serve as a positive reinforcement: "If he gets what he wants when he goes after it like that, why couldn't I do the same?" After all, the aggressor seems to come out of it the winner, without having to explain himself and without being punished which is frequently the case: very few of the aggressors of the boys interviewed had ever been made to suffer the consequences of their acts. Since the perpetrator of the abuse is often a man who has held a significant place in the life of the boy, it is even possible that he may remain a role model. Are not pre-adolescents, generally, urged to learn from their elders?

"Somebody has to Pay for It." The Avenger Strategy
The behavior of the avenger resembles that of the frontier runner, except that what motivates the avenger to commit abuse, whether it be physical or sexual, is neither curiosity, mere indifference, nor re-establishing his manliness but, quite simply, pure vengeance. To subject another person to what he has gone though can certainly imply a vindictive intention on the part of an abused boy. Psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, in trying to understand the vengeance component of sexual excitation among his patients, writes: "Sexual excitement is most likely to be set off at the moment when adult reality resembles the childhood trauma or frustration ... anticipation of danger ... is experienced as excitement, a word used not to describe voluptuous sensations so much as a rapid vibration between fear of trauma and hope of triumph ... The central theme that permits this advance to pleasure is revenge. It reverses the positions of the actors in the drama and so also reverses their affects. One moves from victim to victor."5

Unlike the "frontier runner" previously described, the avenger who commits sexual abuse will prefer to select children who do not resemble himself. In his wish to pervert or to defile someone else, he will generally target "the ideal child," beaming, confident, popular: in short, the child he himself would have wanted to be had the drama he went through not taken place.6 The boy victim of sexual abuse has heard so often that he risks doing the same thing later on that the prophecy haunts and disturbs him. Those who have received help and protection following childhood sexual abuse appear notably less at risk than others in this respect. Conversely, those who have continued to live in a climate of stress, secrecy, and guilt are at greater risk of becoming avengers, although nothing can be taken for granted in this respect.

This seeking of vengeance is not found only in an exact reproduction of what the victim has experienced. For example, anger and resentment may be expressed through vandalism, physical violence, or prostitution that involves exploiting the client through theft. Eric, twenty-three years old, sometimes feels that when he acts as a prostitute he makes his clients suffer, dominates them and makes them pay, literally, for what other men inflicted on him in the prime of his youth. Seventeen-year-old Francis, siding with a group of skinheads, participated actively in punitive trips to the gay village in Montreal to beat up homosexuals. Other boys have told how they committed delinquent acts almost without remorse, because they felt they were making society pay for what they had been forced to endure.
- Dorais, Michael, Don't Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys, McGill-Queen's University Press: London, 2002.

Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information about coping strategies including the victim, the frontier runner, and the avenger. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Which type of coping strategist who commits sexual abuse will prefer to select children who do not resemble himself? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 23
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